Born and brought up in a small home in the Central Asian steppes, Kamilla Sultanova has come a long way from milking cows, feeding chickens and geese and walking 5km to her English language tutor to a leading public speaker on intercultural communication, Danish work workplaces and diversity, Novum board member and trans-Atlantic young diversity leader.
Interview By Sparsh Sharma-Blogger and MBA Student.
Q: Tell us about Novum and your role in it.
A: It’s an association for highly educated professionals with minority backgrounds. I started out as a role model by supporting Novum in the local media, giving hope to, and showing those it is possible to get a job in the Danish market. With over 700 members we strive to bridge Danish companies (small and middle-sized) with highly educated professionals. We train the best candidates within export/import to open up foreign markets for Danish firms. Novum acts as an intermediary, turning our members’ cultural heritage and spoken languages into an asset and therefore facilitating diversity in order to help Danish companies expand oversees.
Today I serve as a board member of Novum, contributing with strategic developments and promotional endeavors within different forums ranging from political debates to Danish Chamber of Commerce conferences, just to name a few.
Q. What can highly skilled immigrants and international students expect from Denmark today?
A: It’s an interesting question and hard to answer in short. I would say they can expect an overall tough job market, but I believe that with baby-steps Denmark is becoming a more pleasant and productive place for both international students and immigrants. Yet, I always like to dish out a double dose of never-ending optimism by saying it is not a place for the weak. “You gotta be tough and self-sufficient to succeed in the land of Danes”.
At the end of the day, whoever chooses to move to Denmark or already resides in here has a purpose. As more and more foreign residents call Denmark home, they must shout “Capre Diem” no matter how tacky it may sound and stick to one’s goals and aspirations and do the best to one’s ability. Even if immigrants are not always in fashion!
As for students, I can’t guarantee procuring a work permit as an easy task, but you see labor protectionist measures in any country you would study in as an exchange student. So why not make the best of it and do what it takes to increase your chances? You get nowhere fast by only passive measures.
Q. Do you think the scenario will change in the near future?
A: Oh yes, pretty much so. Ten years ago when I got here I could hardly find any signs or information in English. Today, I feel foreigners are privileged enough to get a lot of welcome packages written in English and even other languages. That’s quite nice. It is only within the past two years that the Danish politicians and businesses have begun appreciating cultural diversity. Diversity as a concept and a new societal value has been infiltrating both political and recruitment campaigns. It is synonymous with growth, innovation and national strength.
All that remains is hope that a discourse on immigration and foreigners will shift towards a new positive wave, so that a multicultural society becomes a reality and not a myth in this country. This is what I do in my spare time; inspire and motivate Danes to be more open-minded and at the same time, motivate foreigners, such as myself to accept their role as first-movers and know the drill.
Q. Several people complain about integration issues in Denmark, what are your views?
A: The integration /assimilation debate has been an issue for quite a while now, since the last decade has seen the country ruled by a right-wing party with an anti-immigrant agenda. The problem with this ongoing debate is, it has never distinguished between those foreigners who are resourceful and those who are labeled “trouble-makers.”
All newcomers with a foreign sounding name ended up either in a gray folder labeled “indvandrere” or “Muslim”. This was quite frustrating because the media has contributed to this one-sided debate in the past. I choose to use the past tense in order to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, and not elevate it to its former status as problematic.
My way of ignoring the phobias here is to tackle it with humor and stay focus on my dreams.
Q: Did you hear of the medicine “Islamophobia”?
A: Yes there are different immigrant groups that reside in the country, those that are busy establishing themselves and those that have not been so fortunate, without any opportunities to get ahead or to get an education.
When I studied at Aarhus University, I lived in a ghetto (Hasle) and could see what sets people apart, namely, one’s level of education and attitudes towards life in general. On one side, you see young guys helping kids with homework at a local Youth Center and on the other, teenagers recklessly riding scooters on the pavement and confirming to the stereotype of troublemaker…
Everything can’t be equal and the only thing to tackle the integration debate is to eradicate it through education, awareness and government support of initiatives.
Q. Do you think other Danish cities are also as immigrant-friendly as Copenhagen and Aarhus?
A: I wouldn’t know but I could tell you about my experience in Herning. We were a few international students studying in Herning. We were frequently asked when we were in a bar or simply downtown: “Hvorfor snakker du/I engelsk?” (Why are you speaking English?) Again, I think it’s because people didn’t realize there were international exchange students at the local university. It would be worse on Saturday nights where some tipsy Dane would say “Du skal snakke Dansk!” (You must speak Danish!) I wouldn’t ever take it seriously and my friends and I would laugh, as it sounded so rough.
Q. How immigrant-friendly are Danish workplaces?
A: I would say they are friendly and have begun to open up more than say 10 years ago. I hear and I see people getting hired through personal networks that were recently criticized for bordering on nepotism (every third person gets a job via network according to Statistics Denmark.) So just goes to show that, it is not what you know, but whom you know that matters. I would argue this affects how companies hire people with minority backgrounds and ethnic Danes in general.
The trust and chemistry fit are at stake when hiring. I would say the personal chemistry between you, the company and the hiring manager matters more at an interview than your qualifications. Because at the end of the day people need a team player and a nice colleague.
Back to immigrant-discourse: I would say there is room for improvement from both sides: for candidates getting to know how the network operates and with learning the unwritten rules and for companies to open up to foreign talents.
This is also the mission, which lies behind Novum and that I represent; to pave the way for companies
More about Kamilla:
She comes from a family of five children in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Union region with a population of over 30 million people.
Her mission: to share knowledge, empower, inspire change, get inspired for the sake of challenging the norms, become a leader on diversity issues and work for a trustworthy think tank to advice on global cultural affairs.
Driven by Mahatma Gandhi’s saying: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, Sultanova came to Denmark thinking it was “an exotic location (believe it or not)”. Before Denmark, she had spent a year in an American high school as an exchange student.
Today, she is passionate about making the voices of internationals on employment, empowerment, identity and immigration issues in Denmark heard at political debate meetings and conferences.
“From a student, self-made expat to co-citizen perspective, I try to ensure that internationals in Denmark feel united and represented in the society via various cultural and public relations activities and public speaking. Denmark has given me educations, freedom to develop myself and I want to see a more multi-cultural and inclusive second home. But being a first-mover does not come easy and this is what each international should accept and be proud of.”